College News

‘The pursuit of truth is about education’: Accusations of bias fuel protection of free speech

A recent survey found 57 percent of college students feel universities should be able to limit expressions of political views, resulting in the examination of academic freedom on campus.

Image By: Max Homstad

A week after UW-Madison professor Kenneth Mayer came under fire for accusations of bias against President Donald Trump in his course syllabus, questions about changing views on freedom of expression on campus remain.

Fifty-seven percent of college students believe universities should have the ability to restrict the expression of political views that are deemed “hurtful or offensive” to others, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported Wednesday. 

FIRE surveyed 2,225 American college students at two- and four-year schools across the United States. The survey asked questions about free speech, tolerance and freedom of expression.

These survey results come just eight days after Mayer distributed the syllabus for his class entitled The American Presidency — the same day he received criticism that launched the UW-Madison campus into the national spotlight

Notable critics included Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who interviewed a student that thought the syllabus reflected bias Jan. 23, as well as Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, who critiqued Mayer in a letter he sent to the UW System and Wisconsin legislative officials.

“Students who identify as Trump supporters will be encouraged to parrot liberal views that you clearly sympathize with or remain silent in an attempt to mask their conservative opinions,” Murphy wrote in response to the syllabus that referred to Trump as “a president who gleefully flouts the norms of governing and presidential behavior that have structured the office since George Washington.”

Donald Moynihan, former director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison and current professor at Georgetown University, said in an email that Murphy’s criticisms of Mayer’s class “creates a chilling effect on campus speech, warning faculty to stay in line.” 

This is especially notable for Moynihan since Murphy is the chair of Wisconsin State Legislature’s Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. 

“While Representative Murphy claims to represent free speech, the first amendment is precisely about actions by the state to censor certain types of speech,” Moynihan said. 

The Mayer controversy is an issue of intellectual diversity, not speech restriction, although both involve academic freedom, former UW-Madison professor Donald Downs said. 

He also cited intellectual diversity as the source of Murphy’s criticism, too, because of the general assumption most professors are liberal, leading to fewer varying opinions in the classroom.

“There are two threats to academic freedom,” Downs said. “One is from within, and a kind of censorship based on offensiveness or insensitivity, and the other is from outside the university, based on politics. And I think … the Mayer case involves the second one.”

The UW System Board of Regents’ official policy on academic freedom and freedom of expression allows students the ability to write and speak without restraint, as long as it is within the limits of the law and is not disruptive.  

“But it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” the policy states.

Downs agreed speech shouldn’t be limited on the basis of offensiveness.

“Truth can be painful. Truth can hurt,” Downs said. “If offensiveness becomes a grounds for restricting speech, that really is the end of academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus.”

Downs also played a larger role in academic freedom advocacy at UW-Madison in creating the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights in 1996. 

CAFAR was an independent, non-partisan group of university faculty that tackled issues of free speech, due process and academic freedom at UW-Madison and other Wisconsin schools. The organization succeeded in heading the movement that led to the abolition of the faculty speech code in 1999, Downs said. 

Mayer also was a member of CAFAR, advocating for academic freedom on campus since the ‘90s, according to Downs. A UW-Madison report on a 1998 Faculty Senate meeting quoted Mayer questioning whether the faculty speech code was necessary.

Because of Mayer’s history with academic freedom advocacy, Downs said it was “ironic he’s being singled out in this way.”

Moynihan agreed, writing he “is known on campus as a champion of free speech. He has opposed restrictive speech codes, and argued that being offended is sometimes the price of free speech.” 

As for the 57 percent of students who reportedly believe universities should be able to restrict speech, Downs said this is reflective of a more recent “tilt toward censorship.”

“What they show is that students believe in freedom of speech on the whole, but they need more exceptions than they used to,” he said. “Students want more restrictions on speech that they consider sort of offensive, sort of insensitive, that kind of thing.”

Another perspective on this potential shift toward restrictions comes from the General Social Survey, which began in 1976 and conducted its most recent survey in 2016. GSS’ section on free speech revealed 18- to 34-year-olds to be the greatest or equal supporters of freedom of expression — with a few notable exceptions.

For the questions “Should racist be allowed to teach,” “Should racist book be removed from public library” and “Should racist be allowed to make speech,” the 18- to 34-year-old demographic responded in the highest percentages against freedom of expression — 41 percent for yes, 39 percent for removal and 56 percent for yes, respectively.

Moynihan suggested this larger look at student free speech provides a clearer picture of tolerance in differing viewpoints. 

“In general, a broader view suggests that students believe in free speech, and become more tolerant of dissenting views as they spend more time in college,” he said. “One exception is that students tend to be less tolerant of racist or hate speech than previous generations.”

However, it is worth noting that only part of the respondents in this highlighted age demographic are the average age of college students — and no student-specific data was provided.

Professors should have freedom of expression “as long as their beliefs don’t infringe on their work and other students can express differing opinions,” according to UW-Madison sophomore Rachel Hunter. She also stated that the university should not have a policy restricting political views. 

UW-Madison freshman Bayne Basche agreed, noting that the university should only restrict professors’ speech if they receive complaints, otherwise it isn’t the university’s place.

He placed more responsibility on the professors than on students. While he believes everyone on a college campus has the right to freedom of expression, he warned that “professors should be cautious.” 

Both Downs and Moynihan mentioned how Mayer has received threatening emails in response to the controversy, in what Downs called “another threat to academic freedom.”

“This was dishonest and opportunistic,” Moynihan said. “It does not take much imagination to know what would happen to your inbox or sense of personal safety when your name and picture has been put in front of million of viewers as an example of intolerance.”

Downs reinforced that the pursuit of academic freedom should be a non-partisan issue, refuting threats to freedom of expression from both sides of the political spectrum. 

“If you're principled about [academic freedom] and not just political about it, you get upset at it regardless of what political direction it comes from because the principle transcends politics,” he said. “The pursuit of truth is about education.”

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